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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2007

Celebrate spring, summer events with champagne

With the graduation and wedding season just a few months away, what better time for a primer on champagne?

Recall that what chemists call fermentation is a process that turns grape juice into wine. It also turns grape sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, a tasteless, odorless gas that usually escapes the bottle as soon as it is uncorked.

When fermentation takes place inside the sealed bottle, however, the gas is forced to dissolve in the new wine, and it remains under pressure until the cork is pulled and it bubbles off, disappearing with a pop and a splash.

That s a story in itself. Meanwhile, the name can tell us more.

Champagne was the name of a county for many centuries, and today refers to a region east of Paris where the original champagne is made. It lies between two notable cities, Epernay and Reims.

The territory is divided into three districts, each of which typically contributes something distinctive to the wine besides the name. Champagne is a blend, like many other fine wines. Regulations require winemakers to use one or more of three grape varieties grown on the Champagne territory, in whatever proportions the winemaker chooses: Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot meunier. The last two are red grapes, both of which contribute structure as well as color to the wine, while the familiar Chardonnay lends delicacy, color, flavor shadings, and aroma.

Bubbles, it should be noted, are exciting, a living swirl rising to the surface, but they have no taste. A well-made champagne wine, even after the bubbles have drifted away from an old bottle, is a talented balance between acid from grapes raised in a cooler climate and harvested before they are fully mature and the sweetness of the natural sugar of the grape. Achieving this balance is the goal of the master blender at the heart of the winery.

Not only are the constituent wines blended to produce a single balanced wine, but in a swift, dextrous procedure the debris shaken over the course of several months from the unfiltered must (a mixture of fermenting grape juice, pips, skins, stalks, and so on) is removed and replaced by a carefully measured addition of sugared brandy to set the desired alcohol and measure of sweetness between very dry and sweet wine.

Besides cooler vineyard temperatures, the quality of champagne, like that of all wines, depends on the soil where the vines grow. What is special about this favored territory is a widespread area of underlying chalk, which is also vital to a nearby highly regarded still wine, Chablis.

Incidentally, because there are so many variables in making champagne, a non-vintage bottle may some years be a better buy than a costly vintaged one. Unless you re familiar with the appraisals of a vintage you may more wisely go by the maker s brand, whether French or domestic. Ask your dealer.

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